By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
The reaction from patients, advocates and the medical community to a revised draft of the CDC’s opioid guideline has largely been positive, with many cheering the flexibility it gives doctors in deciding whether to prescribe opioids for pain.
Although voluntary and only intended for primary care physicians, the original 2016 guideline’s dose limits became hard thresholds for doctors in all specialties, who feared scrutiny from regulators and law enforcement if they didn’t follow them. The revised draft still recommends caution when prescribing opioids, but emphasizes that physicians should use their own judgement.
“Treating pain is complex. There are a variety of factors at play. And we know that patients respond differently to different types of pain. We tried to incorporate that nuance so that we’re not coming out with something that’s a one-size-fits-all. It really needs to be individualized and flexible,” said Christopher Jones, PharmD, Acting Director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.”
People who’ve been closely following the guideline process were surprised at how extensive the changes are. At a July 2021 public meeting, an independent panel advising the CDC expressed alarm that the agency seemed intent on keeping a recommendation that opioid doses be limited to no more than 90 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) per day.
In the last six months, that dose threshold was taken out of the revised draft, which was published Thursday in the Federal Register.
“It was exciting to open up the draft and see a significant pivot,” said David Dickerson, MD, who chairs the American Society of Anesthesiologists’ Committee on Pain Medicine. “I think the CDC authors have acknowledged that they wanted to do it different this time.”
Dickerson was not only pleased to see the 90 MME threshold go away, but a stronger focus on the many different types of pain, whether its temporary acute pain from surgery or chronic pain from a disabling, incurable disease.
“I think the text of this manuscript is really well done in its draft form right now. When I read through it, it was a great refresher and highlighted some studies that perhaps I had missed,” Dickerson told PNN. “They are instructive, they’re specific, but they also have an intentional vagueness to them to allow for clinicians to practice medicine.”
Importantly, the guideline also makes clear that it shouldn’t be used by third parties to dictate how pain should be treated.
“This voluntary clinical practice guideline provides recommendations only and is intended to be flexible to support, not supplant, clinical judgment and individualized, person-centered decision-making. This clinical practice guideline should not be applied as inflexible standards of care across patient populations by healthcare professionals, health systems, pharmacies, third-party payers, or state, local, and federal organizations or entities.”
“States and insurers have turned the guideline into laws and unbending regulations, preventing physicians from treating patients as individuals with specific needs,” Bobby Mukkamala, MD, Chair of the American Medical Association’s Board of Trustees, said in a statement. “The list of misapplications of the 2016 guideline is long, and its impact has been tremendous harm.
“The CDC’s new draft guideline — if followed by policymakers, health insurance companies and pharmacy chains — provides a path to remove arbitrary prescribing thresholds, restore balance and support comprehensive, compassionate care.”
Nearly 40 states have codified the 2016 guideline in some way, often by limiting the number of opioid pills that can be dispensed for an initial prescription to seven days’ supply or less. Dickerson hopes those states will review and revise their laws and regulations to better reflect what the CDC recommends in its revised draft – that enough opioids be prescribed for “the expected duration of pain.”
“We should right-size our care for the individual patient and be procedure specific. Before it was one-size-fits-all, three to seven days’ (supply),” Dickerson said.
He also thinks the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) should reconsider their aggressive prosecution of doctors for prescribing high doses.
“The work that the DOJ and DEA is doing, I want to believe is done in good intent,” he said. “I think that many of their cases will look at the prescriptions or the doses, but they might not look at the context for why the patient was receiving that care or why they were receiving those medicines.”
The CDC is not expected to finalize its draft guideline until late this year. You can read the guideline and leave an online comment in the Federal Register. Comments must be received by April 11.